Remote Work and Sustainability

Eli Woolery


Companies and individuals who choose to work remotely have a unique opportunity to lower their impact on the planet: by reducing or eliminating commuting, utilizing low-impact office space, and freeing up time for carbon -cutting activities (e.g. walking kids to school) they can open up space to create a more sustainable version of the typical worker.

As a remote worker of 10+ years, Eli Woolery will discuss his own experiences, the experience of the company InVision where he works (InVision is fully remote), and share tips and tricks for moving your own career towards a more remote-based approach.”


Hi everybody. Thanks, Jenn, for that very kind introduction. Jenn and I worked together for several years on a remote project, so it’s fitting that she’s introducing me here.

As Jenn mentioned, I’m at InVision. A lot of you are probably familiar with InVision, the prototyping and collaboration platform. I’m part of a very small and relatively new team called design education. Part of our mission is to create content that helps establish best practices. My boss, Aaron Walter, some of you may know him. He spent a lot of time at MailChimp. He established the UX practice there. He also has a background at the Art Institute of Atlanta. As Jenn mentioned, I have a background in product design, both hardware and software, and also in education. I’ve been teaching at the Stanford for four years. I teach the capstone class there. Taking a product to market by the end of the year. Many go on to create companies from the products, although that’s the exception rather than the rule.

I have a lot of experience with remote work. I’ve largely been remote since 2006. InVision is a fully distributed company. It’s probably the largest company I’ve worked with that’s remote and it’s been a fantastic experience. Since I’ve been doing this for awhile, I’ve put a fair amount of thought into the impact of working remotely. Both on the person and the planet around us. I’m going to talk about a few of those things here today.

I think you could categorize the sustainable benefits of working remotely into three things: fuel, food, and fitness. I’m sure there’s been a lot of definitions of sustainability highlighted here today. I think of being able to have a sustainable lifestyle, in regards to a small carbon footprint, and it has a positive impact on your lifestyle over time. We’re all willing to make sacrifices for a lot of these practices to stick with us, to have a positive impact on our lives, and our colleagues and our families. Remote work does a lot of these things.

Fuel. Aaron Walter is my boss at InVision. He’s a great guy. He’s based out of Athens, Georgia. He’s been commuting from Athens into Atlanta. He did a calculation that during that time, he’s circled the circumference of the Earth six times in 272 days in a car. You can only imagine the carbon footprint that entails. That’s an extreme example, but for the average commute, about a 30 mile commute roundtrip, you’re looking at 4.3 tons of carbon per year emitted. That’s not insignificant. It’s not only the direct impact of driving a car everyday to work, there’s also the indirect impact if you take cars off the road. Traffic congestion contributes about 56 billion pounds of CO2. This is from 2011.

In addition to commuting and taking cars off the road, there’s also this lifestyle element to it. Dennis Field, who’s an enterprise product evangelist for us, sums it up pretty well here. He’s got a 10 minute roundtrip to take his daughter to daycare. That’s it. He’s got less stress. He can get up in the morning and manage his time. He doesn’t have to race to beat traffic. I completely agree with this. In the last place that we lived, I was actually able to go with my daughter to school. Just spending that time with her, not having to be in the car, was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Now to food. Remote work isn’t always glamorous. There was this great satire recently in The New Yorkerwhere someone calls in to a 911 operator, and his emergency is that he works from home. He goes through a litany of things that are going wrong, from still being dressed in his pajamas to not remembering if he showered. I thought one of the funnier bits was talking about what he had eaten.nHe goes through all of these various bizarre concoctions that he’s eaten throughout the day. Eating from home, as a remote worker, has it’s challenges. But I think it also has the opportunity to make some really big changes in regards to sustainability. This has a big impact. If you look at industrial agriculture and the contribution to emissions, there are a lot of different estimates, ranging from 20-33% that can be attributed to industrial agriculture. And in terms of food waste, you’re looking at 3.3 billion tons of CO2 contributed worldwide. Just from wasted food. I think by working from home, you really have an opportunity. Obviously you can do things like cook leftovers, which is great. You can make healthier choices and control the types of foods that you buy that aren’t contributing to industrial agriculture. There are also innovative products and services. Shakti, our social media marketing manager, uses something called Imperfect Produce, which takes rejected produce and sells them at a discounted price. That impacts the food waste statistic that we just touched on. Again, in the lifestyle component of this, it helps not only the sustainability, but Angela here mentions that she used to eat out 5-10 times per week. Now she’s got it down to 1-2. She’s saving money and eating healthier. She still wants to stop eating at her desk—I’m guilty of that as well.

Let’s talk about fitness. The connection here may seem a little bit more tenuous. If you look at statistics around medical waste and the impact on our landfills, there’s one pretty staggering one. Per year, we have 7.5 billion needles and syringes that end up in landfills. This is outside the healthcare system. This medical waste comes from all types of things: people with diabetes and other potentially preventable diseases that can be attributed to our lifestyle and our lack of fitness. It’s another thing that remote work frees you up to do. If you’re not spending those hours in the car, you can instead use that time to get out and exercise. Dennis here again talks about being able to spend time with his wife and being able to sync up schedules to go exercise with her. I often do the same thing with my wife, who also works from home. Having that flexibility to decide is a lifestyle benefit and it’s also preventing potential diseases. Here’s Aaron again saying how much he really enjoys getting to bike with his kids to school. Again, it’s the family and getting some exercise.

For me, it really boils down to two things. I think remote work lets you spend more quality time with your family and lead a healthier lifestyle. The fact that doing these things also has a positive impact is just fantastic. The fully independent work that we do allows for it and I’m hoping over time, more and more people are able to access this type of work. I think in a lot of ways, it allows us to spend more time with your families and encourage a healthier planet.

I know that was pretty brief, so I added a little bit to this. Maybe a little bit of a pivot, although I hope not. Something that I’ve thought about over the years that’s related to the warming of our planet. It’s also something that’s close to the heart for me and it goes back to our impact on the world directly. The relationship between the focus on climate change and the focus on conservation.

I spent about four years in graduate school studying marine biology and marine science and a little bit of climatology. There are some striking things that still stick with me. If you look at the history of the earth, geologically speaking, it’s fluctuated in temperature quite a bit over the years. If you look back 750 million years ago, there was ice almost from pole to pole. It was called Snowball Earth. The ice cover was a factor in the big evolutionary explosion at the time, the Cambrian period. Going forward to 100 million years ago, it flipped and was almost ice free. We have a greenhouse earth effect where there were even forests in Antarctica. It speaks to the adaptability of life on this planet. The truth is, we’re going to have the choice to make on the fact that we have impacted the planet and have to solve that problem. But even if we don’t, life is going to go on and we might not be there to enjoy it. I think that impact, to me, is the meaning that it has on us as people and that relationship between us as people and nature.

I’m probably doing a poor job of summing this up. There was a really great article by Jonathan Franzen in April 2015. He talked about climate change and the focus on conservation. He said it’s not enough to focus just on climate emissions. We also have to keep a lot of wild birds—in this case he’s talking about wild birds—alive right now. He says, “The animals may not be able to thank us for allowing them to live, and they certainly wouldn’t do the same thing for us if our positions were reversed. But it’s we, not they, who need life to have meaning.”

For me, along with family and friends, my connection to nature is probably one of the things that brings the most meaning to my life. In a prior career, I was an underwater photographer and ran an underwater photography magazine. So I spent a lot of time in the water with big animals. Just being in their presence and knowing they were around when the dinosaurs were, 100 million years ago, it’s a source of constant awe for me. These animals that have been around for hundreds of millions of years are having impacts on them from fisheries, that are wiping them out much faster. Certainly climate change can have an effect on the acidifcation of the oceans, and have a consequence on all of the life in the oceans, but I think other things that have an impact are also worth focusing on.

We have this real challenge and opportunity before us. There’s this global climate change, but there are also smaller, and maybe more local, even though some of these problems are worldwide, challenges in conservation that will have the most immediate impacts. From habitat degradation to overfishing. I just encourage us to all think about how we can affect these causes. Sharks, obviously, have a special place in my heart. I’m a contributor to WildAid, a big effort against shark finning. I think you could impact locally in the short term, in addition to all of the sustainable things that we can think about with regards to climate change. Having that balance is a pretty important thing to think about.

I realize that last bit was maybe a little bit off topic, but I feel like it related, hopefully, to the topic we’re all here for. If you ever want to reach out, you can reach out to me on Twitter. I’m @ewoolery. Thanks to the organizers of this conference for having me. I think it’s a really great new tradition that you guys have here.

The New Yorker: I Work From Home
Imperfect Produce
Jonathan Franzen: Carbon Capture


Eli Woolery is the Director of Design Education at InVision. His design career spans both physical and digital products, and he has worked with companies ranging from startups (his own and others) to Fortune 500 companies. In addition to his background in product and industrial design, he’s been a professional photographer and filmmaker. He teaches the senior capstone class Implementation to undergraduate Product Designers at Stanford University.